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In Defense of YA Lit

I am of the (perhaps unpopular) opinion that not all books have to be great. Sure, I want it to be readable, but just how every movie will not be Oscar worthy, neither will every book be the next Great American Novel. And that’s ok. What I want out of most of the books I read is to enjoy them, and they don’t have to be technically perfect for that to happen.

And that’s why I enjoy young adult fiction.

YA lit gets a bad rap. Granted, the market has been over-saturated with love triangles set to the tune of whatever theme is popular, i.e. paranormal, dystopian, wizards, etc. There’s usually one that starts the trend, one that resonates with the crowds, then it spawns one million copycats. It happens over and over, and while it may get exhausting for some, the real question you should ask is who are these books written for?

Young adult fiction had its start shortly after the term “teenager” did. In the 1960s it was decided that people who weren’t children, but not quite adults, were a growing market. The books that fell into this category featured themes that were a bit too mature for the younger kids, but still held onto and talked about adolescence. S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War are good examples of this.

Today’s YA looks very different, but can achieve the same ends. As you would expect, most YA lit is written about teenagers, meaning that the people reading the books are reading about people that look, talk, and feel like them; this is what I think is the main appeal. In a CNN article from 2015, author and publisher Lizzie Skurnick is quoted saying, “It’s not surprising that YA is always dealing with transformation, whether it be realistic or supernatural…It’s the only genre that can always be both. It shows teen life in full chaos. And that means constant change.” That constant change includes all the insecurities and relationship drama, even if it’s dialed up to eleven.

Another thing I like about YA is that it’s getting more diverse. It’s not as dynamic as it could be, sure, but every day there are more LGBT main characters, or characters of color, or characters with disabilities, in books where none of these things are treated as jokes. Young adult fiction is a place for expanding horizons; if it’s acceptable to have vampires and werewolves, why wouldn’t it be acceptable to have a Muslim protagonist? This is also a great way to teach kids about and normalize identities that might get pushed aside in other mainstream media.

Like anything, there is a downside. Many people have valid criticisms about young adult novels: That it’s the same story over and over. That the prose is too easy, that authors are underestimating their readers. Those copycat novels I talked about, a lot of them are not that good, some are even just boring. Publishers want everything to be the next Harry Potter or Hunger Games so they’ll push whatever they can, whether or not the quality is there. These points are good and should be heard, but that doesn’t mean that we should dismiss the entire category, it’s something that should be fixed.

I think the few outweigh the many in this case. If even one great YA novel pushes its way through the sea of mediocre and makes a difference for some kid out there, or even just makes them happy, it will have been worth it. Maybe they aren’t classics, but they’re great when you just want to escape for a while.